1493708559916 - Press freedoms stifled by cynical use of Official Information Act: Report

Press freedoms stifled by cynical use of Official Information Act: Report

Government secrecy is being blamed for New Zealand dropping out of a top 10 ranking of countries that respect media freedom.

Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has issued its latest report, which places New Zealand at number 13 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. It was number five in 2016.

The report said journalists were struggling with the Official Information Act, which gives government agencies long periods of time to respond to requests. Sometimes journalists were asked to pay for information.

“In August 2016, the government revealed a grim future for whistleblowers, announcing a bill that would criminalise leaking government information to the media and would dramatically increase the surveillance powers of the intelligence services. Journalists, bloggers, and civil society representatives would be among the potential targets of the proposed law, which could be adopted in 2017.”

READ MORE: New Zealand rated 10th most socially advanced country

The report surveys 180 countries.

Catherine Strong, from Massey University’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, said the ranking drop was alarming.

She said it was indicative of a growing trend for government agencies to try to hide information from the public.

“Our lower standing is due to the growing list of government agencies trying to hide information by thwarting the Official Information Act, and these agencies are ruining our reputation,” Strong said.

She said there were more complaints to the Ombudsman each year from journalists who could not get information from government bodies. “My field is local government and secrecy is really rampant.”

The Ombudsman’s Office has started releasing detailed lists of every complaint in an effort to encourage departments to improve their public accountability process.

Strong said pressure should be put on government not to be so secretive and not to run public bodies as if they were private companies. “They need to realise that democracy is imporant.”

Joanna Norris, Fairfax’s South Island editor in chief and  chair of New Zealand’s Media Freedom Committee, said there were several challenges that threatened media freedom.

“Among the most serious of these is the consistent and cynical misuse of official information laws which are designed to assist the release of information, but are often used to withhold it,” she said.

“Another challenge which threatens to undermine media freedom is the actual sustainability of professional journalism, which is costly and becomes increasingly hard to support as revenues decline or shift to offshore giants.

“The debate in relation to the proposed merger between local media companies has been a useful and critical conversation to help New Zealanders understand the role and value of strong New Zealand-based media. Strong journalism supports the well-being of all Kiwis.”

The Commerce Commission is due to release its decision on the proposed Fairfax-NZME merger on Wednesday, which is World Press Freedom Day.